GREENSBORO, N.C.—On Friday night in Greensboro Coliseum, Duke played North Carolina. It was the third matchup of the year between the two rivals. In many ways, it was a strikingly familiar game. It was another low-scoring meeting, complete with hard fouls, strong screens and stifling blocks. Somehow, the two teams managed to score fewer combined points than they did the last time.
But there was one key difference. This time, the Blue Devils prevailed. No. 2-seed Duke came out on top of a 44-40 defensive slugfest and will move onto the ACC semifinal Saturday afternoon against Virginia Tech. Two tremendously strong defensive teams held each other to well below the other squad’s average points per game, but some key shots and good defense down the stretch made all the difference.
“In the critical moments of the game, we executed just a little better and were able to make one or two more plays,” said head coach Kara Lawson after the game. “I'm just proud of how we stuck with it and we just kept fighting.”
As in the previous two matchups, the quarterfinal was tight at the half. The Blue Devils came back onto the floor down 24-19 but bounced back out of the locker room. Lawson’s team had turned the ball over 13 times before the buzzer sounded at halftime. In the second half, Duke cleaned up its act, giving up the rock just six more times.
The Blue Devils also cut down on their fouls in the second half, whacking Tar Heels just six times in the third and fourth quarters combined. In a game that was ultimately decided by some key Shayeann Day-Wilson free throws down the stretch, keeping No. 7-seed North Carolina away from the charity stripe was key. The Tar Heels shot just one free throw in the second half on a Deja Kelly and-one.
The game seemed to be, like both of the other Duke-North Carolina games this year, physically draining. There were lots of transition opportunities that had players sprinting up and down the floor, and combined with physical interior play, lots of loose balls and hard screens on the perimeter, it was one that surely took a toll on the players. That can be attributed partially to the deep rivalry between the two teams, and partially to the postseason atmosphere.
“It looked like a playoff game. And that's what it was. I don't think we were shocked by it,” said Lawson. “That's how it is when it's close. You have two teams that are really competitive and fighting for something that they want.”
Most importantly, Friday was another tremendously low-scoring affair. The two teams combined for just 84 points, two less than Sunday’s 86-point showing, a 45-41 Tar Heel victory in the regular-season finale. Duke in particular has been known all year for a good-but-not-great offense and a stifling defense. North Carolina once again shut down the Blue Devil attack, playing excellent transition defense and forcing Duke to run slower, more methodical half-court sets. Lawson had in the past mentioned her preference for quick and creative offense; the Tar Heels did everything they could to control the pace of the game.
Once again, North Carolina held Duke to zero fast-break points. That is the third time that they have done it this year, which is all the more impressive when you consider that the Blue Devils scored 12 in transition against N.C. State and six against No.10 Notre Dame, both Duke wins.
Friday evening’s game was, in many ways, the same game that was played less than a week prior in Durham. It was a physical battle between two hard-nosed teams, with the Tar Heels severely limiting the Duke transition offense and the Blue Devil defense holding up in the face of a formidable North Carolina attack.
Once again, just a few shots would have made all the difference. There is a reason that this season’s series between the two rivals featured an average margin of victory of just 4.3 points.
But this one mattered, just a little bit more than the other two. Duke has earned the right to play in the ACC semifinal, while North Carolina will go on hiatus until its likely appearance in the NCAA tournament.
“I'm really proud of my team,” said Lawson. “... It wasn't pretty, but we were able to figure out a way to get it done, which is all you need to do in a tournament like this.”
The Blue Devils will go again Saturday at 2:30 p.m., back in Greensboro against the third-seeded and eighth-ranked Hokies. Winner moves on to Sunday afternoon’s final.
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